The path from German surrealist opera to Hollywood blockbuster scores is not a well-trodden path and yet this was the reality of the young, immensely talented Jewish composer Erich Korngold. Last night’s opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), written almost a hundred years ago, received a rare concert performance in Dublin with Celine Byrne as Marietta and Charles Workman as Paul making for a thrilling evening.

Celine Byrne © IMG Artists
Celine Byrne
© IMG Artists

It must be incredibly rare that a very young composer should have two opera companies vying with one another to be the first to stage one of his operas. This was the case for the prodigious 23-year old Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. It was hailed to great acclaim across Europe and America but by 1938 it was banned by Nazi Germany. Since then it has become much rarer to see it performed, which is a shame given its lush Straussian orchestration, its advanced romantic chromaticism and its evocative, surreal theatricality.

Dreams, obsessions, memory, guilt, life and death: these are themes that of Die tote Stadt. The libretto was written by Korngold and his father, who was a prominent music critic in Vienna at the time under the pen name of Paul Schott. It recounts the story of a grieving widower named Paul who has a room dedicated to the memory to his dead beloved wife, Marie. Paul, one day, sees another woman called Marietta in the street who looks exactly like his dead wife. The boundaries between Marie and Marietta become increasingly blurred as do reality and imagination. This dream-like world continues, culminating in Marietta’s murder by Paul, strangling her with a lock of his wife’s hair. However, in reality Marietta comes back to collect her umbrella. In the end, Paul decides to leave the city of the dead.

While this was a concert performance, the singers using scores, John McKeown’s stage directions were artfully done. Paul entered slowly and dramatically from the left of the Stalls, Marietta from the right and Maria from the Choir Balcony. Paul gesticulated, wrung his hands and fell to his knees while Marietta coquettishly sashayed across the narrow piece of stage in front. At the end of Act 2, Paul swept Marietta into a passionate embrace. All such gestures and actions added greatly to the performance and gave us a yearning to see a fully staged version here in Dublin.

The cast of singers ranged from the very good to the superlative. Both the lead parts of Paul and Marietta/Marie were wonderfully convincing. It is a great pleasure as always to welcome back Irish soprano Celine Byrne, particularly after a magnificent Madama Butterfly a mere three weeks ago. Possessing a voice of liquid gold that can soar at will, Byrne used all her charms as Marietta to win over the brooding Paul. Her melting tones hovered effortlessly in the ether, wafting across the hall as she sang her famous aria of “Glück das mir verblieb”. Her acting was equally compelling as she flirted with her theatre friends, Fritz, Victorin and the Count and she was at her most seductive at the end of Act 2 as she lured Paul to love her. On several occasions in Acts 1 and 3, the orchestra overpowered Byrne with all its symphonic might.

Charles Workman as Paul possessed an attractive, warm tenor, the sweet heft of his voice carrying well over the tumultuous orchestration. His acting was top notch too and he carried off the dream-reality paradigm with aplomb. His ability to switch from hot, intense passion to guilt and despair within the same phrase was outstanding and made for a most compelling portrayal of Paul. The opera is murderously taxing for Paul where he sings with few breaks and towards the end of Act 1 and again at the end of Act 3 his voice sounded tight and he struggled somewhat with the high notes in the quieter moments.

Baritone Ben McAteer really stood out in his different roles as Frank and Fritz. His aria “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” was touchingly sung and in his mid- range his voice possessed a noble, romantic tone. Katharine Goeldner’s Brigitta and the rest of the cast sang commendably while the chorus and the children’s choir really added to the brooding atmosphere.

The RTÉ NSO were in fine form revelling in the passionate, rich, evocative score. Conductor Patrik Ringborg did an excellent job of conveying the lush sensuality of this music, though at times in the full outpouring of passionate intensity, the orchestra tended to overpower the singers too much. Nonetheless, this concert performance was a fine, compelling and wonderfully evocative account of Korngold’s opera. 

****1